Lab Director: Diana Tamir, PhD


At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, we investigate questions surrounding the thoughts, cognitive processes, and behaviors that occur at the place where our internal world meets the external social world. We employ methods like functional neuroimaging, machine learning, and behavioral experiments to gain empirical insights into questions about the self and the social world.


Selfish and Social Motives

Both the internal and external worlds exert an enormous influence on our thoughts and behaviors. On the one hand, our subjective perspective wholly determines the contents of our mind. On the other hand, our survival necessitates that we escape our subjective perspective and think about the external social world. We are interested in understanding this tension.

For example, observe any social interaction, and you will almost certainly see that humans have a pervasive tendency to broadcast information about themselves to other people. What motivates self-disclosure—a pervasive, self-centered and social act? We find using both functional neuroimaging and behavioral economics methods that people value any opportunity to share information with others - both self-referential and arbitrary information alike (Tamir & Mitchell, 2012Tamir, Zaki, & Mitchell, 2015). Ongoing projects are exploring social proximity, social distance, and social deprivation as powerful manipulations for altering these basic social motives.

Social media have generated an explosion of Internet sharing. How do social media exploit our selfish and social motives (Tamir & Ward, 2015)? How can researchers harness social media to learn about the building blocks of the social mind (Meshi, Tamir, & Heekeren, 2015)? Current projects in the lab are using machine learning techniques to capitalize on the explosion of shared data on social media such as Twitter.

Understanding Others' Minds

One person can never truly know the contents of another person’s mind. Despite the inherent opacity of others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions, humans are actually quite proficient at inferring others’ invisible, internal mental states—a capacity known as mentalizing. The lab uses behavioral and neuroimaging methods to explore the processes that allow us to accomplish these mind reading feats. For example, research has explored the cognitive processes underlying social inferences, such as egocentric anchoring and adjustment (Tamir & Mitchell, 2010; Tamir & Mitchell, 2013). We have also used multivariate pattern analyses of neuroimaging data to uncover the psychological dimensions that shape our neural representations of others’ mental states (Tamir, Thornton, Contreras, & Mitchell, 2016). Current projects should shed light on how people mentalize about dissimilar others, what constitutes similarity, and how these processes and representations change when the other person is liked, disliked, or hated, and familiar or unfamiliar.

Transcending the Here-and-Now

Our bodies can only ever exist in the here-and-now. However, through the power of our imagination, humans can conjure up experiences wholly divorced from their current environment—a capacity known as simulation. The lab studies the cognitive and neural mechanisms that support successful simulation.

We have examined the neural network responsible for simulation, the brain’s default network, and found that it is engaged more for simulating the self in proximal than distal scenarios in four dimensions—spatial, temporal, hypothetical, and social distance alike (Tamir & Mitchell, 2011). We have also explored fiction reading as a means of facilitating simulations of both people and places (Tamir, Bricker, Dodell-Feder, & Mitchell, 2016), and possibly improving one's ability to simulate other’s minds. We have explored other consequences of thinking outside the here and now, for example on an individuals perceived meaning in life (Waytz, Hershfield, & Tamir, 2015). We are currently exploring simulation by studying individuals with expertise in imagination, creativity, and mentalizing.